Looking Back

RIN Revolt and Kallol

Sandip Bandyopadhyay

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the historic Royal Indian Navy (RIN) revolt (18-23 February, 1946), termed ‘RIN Mutiny’ by the British. It also coincides with the end of the 50th year of Kallol (1965), a play by Utpal Datta, based on the said revolt. Kallol was undoubtedly a bold production which made a breakthrough on the Bengali stage even as it earned the ire of the Congress Government in West Bengal. Datta was arrested and put behind bars in the same year. This official action sparked off widespread protest. A large section of the intelligentsia stood by Utpal Datta and upheld the artist’s right to freedom of expression.

Revisiting Kallol after fifty years may however raise some questions. How far was it authentic in terms of history? An author or a playwright is at liberty to rearrange facts, reconstruct proper scenes and bring in new characters for the sake of his/her artistic work. But he is expected to be careful that history is not distorted or manipulated in the process. Did Kallol pass muster in this regard?

Marxist leaders and even historians like Sumit Sarkar note that the rebel ratings hoisted three flags—those of the Congress, Muslim League and the Communist Party (CPI, undivided). This is to suggest that the revolting ratings or at least a section of them had Communist leanings. Recent internet sources also ditto this claim. But none of the accounts authored by the participants—B C Dutt, P B Bhattacharya and Biswanath Bose—corroborates this version. Dutt who is acclaimed as the initiator of revolt at the Talwar naval centre in Bombay (Mumbai), categorically says in his memoir ‘Mutiny of the Innocents’ (1971) that they tried to ‘Steer clear of those with a political past’ and the very few who had some earlier political experience ‘preferred to swim with the current’. He emphatically maintains that ‘no political party had any active member in our ranks’ (pp 113, 123-124). According to B C Dutta they were politically ‘innocent’ i.e. inexperienced and were basically ‘emotionally’ motivated. Bhattacharya and Bose also do not refer to the red flag purported to have been held up by the rebels.

Utpal Datta not only follows the CPI version of the event but goes a step further. In Act III, a British captain alleges that he has seen some ratings reading ‘People’s Age’, the CPI mouthpiece. This is contrary to Dutt’s account. B C Dutt elsewhere (p 79) notes that, at the initial stage, they received ‘some guidance from the leftist leaders’ of the Congress. By the ‘leftists’ Dutt certainly means the socialists who formed the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) within the Congress. He adds that those leaders were the ‘militant elements of the Quit India movement’ (1942). This confirms that the leftists, referred to by Dutt, did not include the communists because it is too well known that the CPI did not join the 1942 movement.

All the first-hand accounts maintain that the rebels were inspired by the exploits of the 1942 militants, and also the heroic role of Subash Chandra Bose and his INA. ‘Do or Die’ resounded in their slogans, they earnestly wanted a leader like Subhash Bose and their last message to the people of India ended with ‘Jai Hind’. In Kallol (Act III), the Khaibar ship which was reported missing emerges as a truly revolutionary force with the sickle-and-hammer flag fluttering; whereas the Talwar where the revolt first broke out is portrayed as being in a compromising position. The fact is that the Khaibar was not allowed to get to the harbour; it fired cannon-shells at the European settlement from a distance. On the other hand, the Talwar had to surrender at the instance of Sardar Patel. Because the Strike Committee of the ratings had reposed faith in the ‘national’ (Congress) leadership and pledged to abide by their direction. Dutt frankly admits that it was a ‘grievous mistake’ on their part to rely on the national leaders (p 140).

B C Dutt hasn’t forgiven any political party and accused some of ‘making political capital out of it [the revolt] by proclaiming an imagined role’ (p 124). He bitterly criticises Aruna Asaf Ali of the CSP who only advised them to remain clam (p 133). P B Bhattacharya in his ‘Noubidroher Itihas’ in Bengali (1979) shares Dutta’s injured feelings and maintains in unambiguous terms that Aruna ‘evaded her responsibility’ (pp 94, 113). Biswanath Bose (‘RIN Mutiny 1946’, 1988) mentions the name of one S Sengupta, a communist minded officer of the Dipabati ship who supported the revolt (p 239). Bose, however, has not attributed the ratings’ upsurge to the leadership of any political party. The rebels hoisted the flags of the Congress and the Muslim League and raised slogans : ‘Down with British Imperialism’, ‘Hindu-Muslim Ek Ho’ etc (pp 83, 86).

Biswanath Bose mentions one occasion when on 21 February the Strike Committee appealed to the leaders of the Congress, League and the Communist Party to support their demands and ‘prevent bloodshed’. But he hastens to add that none of the parties responded to this fervent appeal (p 89). In the ‘Why This Name’ section of his book, Bose, observes that the CPI had initially remained ‘indifferent’ and became active later on.
B C Dutt repeatedly tries to stress the point that their demand was not for better food only, but for the country’s freedom. Hence the slogans were markedly anti-imperialist and were not confined to professional demands. In Act IV of Kallol, one however hears a character, Rajguru, proclaiming that ‘we want better food, better uniform—that is the slogan of our revolt’. Does it reflect the spirit of the rebel ratings?

Kallol dwells at length on the calamitous street-fighting in Bombay city between the workers and the common people on the one hand and the police-military combined force on the other. It was on 22 February, the day of General Strike called by the CPI and supported by the CSP. The communists played a leading role in organising the strike. Kamal Dhonde, a leader of the party’s women’s organisation fell to military bullets. But the people’s upsurge was spontaneous, regardless of any particular leadership. B C Dutt notes that very few workers joined the public meeting called by the CPI. He is however all praise for Chittoprosad, the communist-minded painter who drew a sketch on the public uprising in the streets of Bombay (p 172).

Along with the workers and students, the common people came out in the streets to express their solidarity with the rebel ratings. They daringly fought with the armed force and the street-battle claimed around 250 lives. It was all spontaneous. The story of ‘Communist conspiracy’ behind the naval ‘mutiny’ was cooked up by the British and the Congress too. The governor’s report to Viceroy Wavell on 27 February didn’t forget to mention that the Congress leaders were sure that the communists were ‘intent on working up a state of chaos’ (N Mansergh ed. The Transfer of Power, Vol VI, 1976, p 1084).

Kallol brought to the fore a glorious chapter of the last phase of Indian freedom-struggle, deliberately suppressed by the Nehru Government after Independence. It was a bold attempt indeed. But it ended up in a biased representation of that great event. Insurrection was plotted in other branches of the army too in 1943-44. But, as Major Joypal Singh points out, no political party gave a call for revolt.

Vol. 48, No. 36, Mar 13 - 19, 2016